Analogue: A Hate Story review
Hate? I Love This Story.
To start things off, I should clarify something about this game. Analogue: A Hate Story is a visual novel in nature and really isn't going to change the minds of gamers who aren't into the genre and probably isn't going to have the amount of "gameplay" people unfamiliar with the genre might expect. However, for those still interested, here awaits a story so compelling that you'll love every minute of it.
So let's start with how it looks. The most striking thing about the game are the two AI personalities you get to interact with. *Hyun-ae has a more demure look with a smart uniform outfit while *Mute's appearance stands out a lot more with bright colours and a more stylish outfit. Their appearances suit their characters extremely well and are easy on the eyes. Of course, being a visual novel means no true fluid animation but both AIs do showcase a variety of emotions and switch between various stances and expressions as the conversation topic demands.
The style of the game reflects the setting of navigating a ship's computer quite well, opting for a minimalistic appearance as you sift through logs and even an interesting idea with the DOS style command prompt. That said, while all that may well suit the setting, it does mean you don't get much variety in the way of backgrounds so I hope you're happy to have white staring back at you for the majority of the game. Additionally, the game doesn't really have CG scenes except for the endings. It's not too bad I guess but a little more wouldn't hurt.
Soundwise is a little more disappointing than that. There's a certain eerieness to the music on offer that goes with the overall tone of the story, but it just feels far too repetitive and just ends up more annoying than anything. I honest ended up mentally tuning out of it. On the other hand, the sound effects work well, with the kinds of beeps and bops you'd expect from it.
The real heart of the novel is in the storytelling and this is where Christine Love shows off her skills the best. You've been sent by an agency to recover the files of the Mugunghwa, a colony ship that vanished many years ago and has now mysteriously reappeared. You don't get to step foot on the ship though but instead use an access terminal to look into the logs of the ship from remote.
So much of the story is told to you via the various ship logs you gain access to. These logs take the form of personal diary entries and official correspondence that build a picture of what life was like aboard the Mugunghwa. Needless to say that the depressing tone set by the game title is accurately reflected in the plot. Life on the ship had broken down, creating a culture where men were treated as important and women were there purely to do their bidding. Tales of betrayal, sadness, resignation and hatred lie throughout the log entries as you learn of the events and the standard of living. I genuinely felt my emotions stirred on numerous occasions as I read of the turmoil they faced, ranging from my own anger at how some parents forced a child into a cruel way of life she didn't deserve and sympathy for a girl who had all her dreams crushed and her spirit destroyed.
Of particular note is an individual referred to in the logs as The Pale Bride. This is a girl who had been in cryostasis due to an illness. Time had caused the descendants of the ship to lose track of why she was in there and gave them the mistaken impression she was to be a saviour of some sort to their noble house. Naturally when she is awoken and realises that not only is the culture vastly different to what she remembers but that her new parents seek to force a cruel fate on her for the glory of their family she rebels. Well, she rebels as much as allowed in a culture that oppresses women, which is what creates a lot of the tension in the story and makes the drama all that more interesting.
Due to the style the story is told in a disjointed manner as you get glimpses of different elements and then trawl through related documents so it falls on the player to piece together the events and figure out what problems that society faced and if it tied in with the fate the ship met. Since the logs are written by the personnel aboard the ship, you end up reading a heavy amount of bias and multiple perspectives around the same series of events. As one person mourns, another holds nothing but anger. As a result, you begin to understand that this story isn't as black and white as many video games would go. It's not a case of a brave valiant hero rising up to strike down an evil villain. This is a story of a society that has broken down and a serious clash of values that leads to terrible hardships. It manages to slip multiple twists throughout, where some can be seen coming but some came as genuine surprises to me, and that made it even better.
I think that if it had been the logs alone then Analogue wouldn't have had the impact it did. While you're looking through the logs you will have one of two AI personalities active and you can show log entries to them. Each AI will likely have their own take on it and can potentially provide their own insight into it and may even dig out more log entries related to the same incident. As you may expect, both AIs are involved in the plot at some point and are likewise emotionally invested, despite the fact that hundreds of years have passed since then. It's really through this extra layer of interaction that the story becomes as fleshed out as it does and moves the player. Hyun-ae is the first AI you meet and from the moment you meet her she appears demure and withdraw in some respects. She seems to act cautious around you despite a somewhat childlike glee at having some to talk to in hundreds of years. Events in the game eventually let you awaken Mute, the other AI. Mute is quite the opposite of Hyun-ae, being a lot more outspoken and brash. After a few exchanges, it becomes clear Mute has issues with Hyun-ae and it takes digging through the logs to find out the problem. This tension allows the story to progress very smoothly as you have to weigh up the differing opinions the AIs give you.
In terms of gameplay things are mostly as limited as a visual novel tends to be. You'll actually spend most of the game reading through the log entries and getting the opinions of the currently active AI, hoping to unlock the next set of log entries in order to find out more of the story. When the AI requests a response from the player this is done via the method of selecting one of the predefined options given to you. The game cleverly dresses up the fact that you're limited to binary responses (selecting from a choice provided by the AIs) as a technical malfunction that causes the AIs to be unable to parse your text input. That said, it's worth noting that your responses to these questions mostly only affect the ending you get and are generally pretty straightforward in that regard. As long as you answer "correctly" then you can reasonably play up to a point of no return, where you can from there realistically obtain all five endings by simply reloading that save and making the necessary changes after it.
The computer input allows for a few other interesting interaction elements. You have a search by ID function that lets you pull up a log entry by putting in its file ID, even if the AI hasn't unlocked it for you. On a first playthrough this seems utterly meaningless, but it matters slightly more after that as it can grant access to log entries you normally wouldn't be able to see at that point and even becomes necessary for one of the endings. The other more significant element is the DOS command window that you can pull up at almost any time. It gives a real sense of interacting with computer files as you can do things like access the ship's systems, switch AIs and decrypt log blocks that are locked off. In fact, this provides a huge driving force for two significant parts of the game. At the beginning, you're tasked with finding out the password for the administrator account that's buried in one of the log entries so you can access the rest, and later on there is a relatively low pressure timed sequence where you need to manipulate ship systems to prevent a critical disaster from occurring. While these interactions may feel minimal for gamers who regularly indulge in more action, it proved to be an interesting way to draw the player in and even required a good bit of thinking.
Does the game have any problems with its storytelling? Well yes, a few. For one, unlocking log entries can be a bit of a "try everything and see what works" thing. Ideally, you're only supposed to show log entries to your AI that are significant and require expansion, but it's quite tricky to figure out the difference so I ended up showing pretty much every log just to see which ones triggered anything. Worse, there's a point where you have to switch AIs and then trawl back through old logs with the new AI to find the necessary trigger. The game does help here at least by greying out the option if it won't do anything of use ("use" defined more by whether the AI has anything new to say rather than whether it'll progress the game or not). It's also worth noting that unlocking some log entries and even a couple of the endings are rather tricky to figure out. Again, it comes down to just trying everything and see if anything works, but there are a couple that outright stumped me, and not in the good way where I'd see the logic if I thought about it.
Analogue doesn't really have the replay value of other visual novels either. Like I mentioned before, you can easily set a save point relatively close to the end of the game where you can diverge off for all the endings, but in general the decisions you make prior to that don't really alter things too much. After all, the log entries are already written by characters that are long deceased by the time you get there, and while the AI remarks can differ slightly based on your responses to them, it's not quite the same thing as visual novels usually offering multiple completely different routes after a prologue period. As much as I loved the story, I just didn't see much of an incentive to start again from the beginning. It's also a relatively short game, where I was able to see the majority of the game content in under five hours. At least at $10 it's not too steep a price to pay.
Analogue: A Hate Story isn't the kind of thing you usually see on Steam and it's appeal is limited to those that like visual novels to begin with. Fortunately that demographic includes me and I have to say that the storytelling in the game is amazing, it has some interesting interaction elements and some beautiful designs. There's a demo available if you want a taste before you commit to it, but for me it's definitely worth the money.
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